When starting a new sefer of the Pentateuch, it’s always interesting to try to get a feel for the book- what its main message is, what types of stories it contains, and why they are all together. However, before reaching that deeper level, a good starting point is the name of the sefer. Ours is called “ויקרא,” literally “And He called out,” which seems to be a very random name for such a crucial book. This third book is called תורת כוהנים by רמב”ן and even the Christians seemed to be on the right track by calling it Leviticus, or book of the Levites. How could such a seemingly banal name like “ויקרא” sum up the essence of the eventful third book of the Torah?
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the UK, presents an interesting approach to why ויקרא is such a perfect name for our sefer. He begins by looking at the first word of our parsha: “ויקרא.” Those of us who are looking clearly will notice that the letter alef of ויקרא is smaller than the rest of the word, an uncommon occurrence in the Torah that usually points to something deeper going on.
Rashi explains that the significance here can be found by looking at this essential word both with and without this smaller אלף. With the alef at the end, the word is “ויקרא,” which Rashi explains is indicative of “calling out”- when G-d communicates to our holy prophets, He does so in לשון חיבה, through planned קריאה. On the other hand, when G-d speaks to נביאי עבודה זרה (not exactly commonplace- this only really happened with Bilam) it is less pleasant and more casual and happenstance, or “ויקר- and he happened to appear.” What a difference one small alef can make.
Ba’al Haturim expands on this by giving us a background as to why this happened at the beginning of ספר ויקרא. Moshe, the greatest prophet of the Jewish People was also very humble. After putting together the Mishkan at the end of Pekudei and having to leave the Tabernacle with the rest of the Jews, he wanted to play down the fact that he, and only he, was called back. Therefore, he attempted to write “ויקר אל משה- And G-d happened to call to Moshe.” G-d, however, did not want him to belittle himself and made him write ויקרא to give Moshe the proper כבוד, so Moshe settled on a compromise by writing a smaller אלף in ויקרא.
While this is a very deep teaching that may need to be taken with a grain of salt, Rav Sacks explains that it is no coincidence that ויקרא with a small aleph is the name of and beginning of the sefer– Sefer Vayikra’s essence is all about the struggle of ויקר vs. ויקרא. Rav Sacks looks towards the end of the sefer for another example of this theme:
Towards the end of the תוכחה/admonishment in פרשת בחוקתי, G-d tells of the terrible future for the Jewish people if they don’t keep His mitzvot and covenant properly:
וְהִתְוַדּוּ אֶת-עֲוֹנָם וְאֶת-עֲוֹן אֲבֹתָם, בְּמַעֲלָם אֲשֶׁר מָעֲלוּ-בִי, וְאַף, אֲשֶׁר-הָלְכוּ עִמִּי בְּקֶרִי. אַף-אֲנִי, אֵלֵךְ עִמָּם בְּקֶרִי, וְהֵבֵאתִי אֹתָם, בְּאֶרֶץ אֹיְבֵיהֶם; אוֹ-אָז יִכָּנַע, לְבָבָם הֶעָרֵל, וְאָז, יִרְצוּ אֶת-עֲוֹנָם.
And they shall confess their sins and the sins of their fathers, the treachery that committed against me, and also that they have treated me with keri. I will also treat them with keri and bring them into the land of their enemies… (ויקרא כו:מ-מא)
Even though this admonition ends on a more hopeful note, it is clear that if we ever break our covenant with G-d, bad things will happen to us. Worst will be if we dare treat G-d with קרי- too bad we’re not entirely sure what this means. In the entire תוכחה, the word קרי appears exactly seven times, not an insignificant number in Judaism and almost as conspicuous as the small alef in ויקרא. What could this possibly mean?
Rambam (הל’ תעניות א:ג) explains that קרי is translated as chance or מקרה. When the Jews turn their relationship with G-d into one of “קרי”, casual chance, then G-d will punish us with קרי, by not even deigning to punish us personally- instead, he will put us in the land of our enemies, let them do the hard work of torturing us, and ignore us until we call out for Him to save us.
Rav Sacks concludes that the essence of ספר ויקרא is the struggle between מקרא and מקרה, seeing history as a call from G-d, or as happenstance. The warning of the small “א” in the name of our sefer is to remind us of the small, fragile line between destiny and chance.
I believe that Rav Sacks’s words are very apt in our times. With the opportunities and tragedies that have occurred in recent history, we are faced with a choice- we can see them as happenstance, as “מקרה” and “קרי”, or as destiny, “מקרא.” Our responsibility is to make the right choice, see the מקרא in the news and current events, and take advantage of opportunities to come closer to G-d by answering His subtle call to us. If we fail to do so, then פרשת בחוקותי spells out the punishment all-to-clearly- we will have lost everything that matters and have sentenced ourselves to eternal suffering in the lands of our enemies.
Next week, we will be reading פרשת זכור, which commands us in the all-important mitzva of remembering Amalek. The reading begins with:
זָכוֹר, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק, בַּדֶּרֶךְ, בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם. אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל-הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ–וְאַתָּה, עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ; וְלֹא יָרֵא, אלקים.
Remember what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt. How they met you on your way and attacked from behind when you were weary and weak, and they did not fear G-d. (דברים כה:יז-יח)
It seems that among the different reasons that Amalek has taken on a special level of infamy in Jewish history, the main reason is how they started their attack: “אשר קרך בדרך”. I believe that in the context of Rav Sack’s idea, this phrase takes on a higher level of significance, for קרך sounds very similar to מקרה and קרי. We read that Amalek snuck up on the Jewish people and attacked them from behind- but even if they had, why didn’t the Jews see them coming? Because, yes, Amalek attacked them from behind, but they couldn’t have gotten that close without anyone noticing! No, their “sneaking up from behind” was their “אשר קרך בדרך”- the Jews saw them coming, but Amalek hid their intentions, showing signs of being a peaceful nation just passing by. Then, when the Jews’ backs were turned, they “happened” to attack. This is the modus operandi of Amalek- they are, as Prime Minister Netnayahu said of Iranian President Rouhani, “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” They approach from behind and attack in Rephidim. They put on a face for the public while secretly working with the King of Persia on a plan to annihilate all of the Jews. Even when they lose, they convince the Jewish leadership (Shaul) to keep their king alive long enough to reproduce, so that their evil seed will continue. In short, they take advantage of this מקרא vs. מקרה confusion and use it to their advantage by attacking in קרך. The lesson of פרשת זכור, when read with a reading in ספר ויקרא, is twofold- to make sure to see the מקרא in מקרה, and never let any of our enemies take advantage of this confusion and attack בקרך.
This past week, 14,000 Americans poured into the nation’s capital for the 2014 AIPAC Policy Conference. In the addresses from Secretary of State Kerry and Prime Minister Netanyahu, many strong words were used (mostly by the latter), and promises were made (mostly by the former). Unfortunately, what was missing were concrete plans and actions on how to defeat Israel’s enemies. Kerry in particular was adamant, even when speaking to thousands of pro-Israel delegates, that he and the Obama administration would push for peace with the Palestinians and would make a deal with Iran, putting the Jewish state into serious danger in the process. Even when on Wednesday morning, it was announced that Israel had intercepted a ship carrying missiles from the Iranians to the Palestinians, the American government barely batted an eyebrow, insisting that the most productive course of action would be continuing to pursue a deal with the Islamic regime, despite its obvious bad faith and evil intentions.
What struck me as odd was that later on Wednesday, it was released that the United States government had intelligence of the planned Iranian weapons shipping to Gaza. According to State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, the US had considered “unilateral” action to stop the Iranian ship. Unfortunately, they did not act in time, and it was left to Israel to stop the exchange. Furthermore, this morning, White House press secretary Jay Carney got up and said that despite the weapons exchange violated UN Security law, the Obama administration will still pursue an agreement with Iran.
This is a prime example of the struggle of מקרא vs. מקרה. If one is shortsighted enough, the occasional Iranian missile “test” launch or weapons exchange can seem like a coincidence, like מקרה. But, we know two things; that at a certain point, these incidents are no longer a coincidence despite how much we would like them to be. Also, Iran is very much considered to be our modern-day Amalek, so not only will they stop at nothing to destroy the Jewish People (both at home and abroad), but they also have a historical tendency to attack in קרך, using “coincidences” like the failed weapon exchange on Wednesday morning, to turn the world away from them until they can attack us all from behind.
It behooves us all to learn from the lessons of ספר ויקרא, to read the writing on the wall, attack our enemies before they’ve succeeded on sneaking up behind us, and remind the world that there is no such thing as a coincidence- rocket firings, weapons exchanges, terrorist attacks- they’re all מקרא, and we need to react. With Hashem’s help, we will see the world becoming a safer place through an increased sensitivity to מקרא, and merit the eradication of Amalek very speedily in our days. Shabbat Shalom.